Keeping readers interested in a single character for twenty-three books is no small feat, but Sue Grafton has led mystery fans through the alphabet to great success. From A is for Alibi (1982) to this month’s W is for Wasted, Grafton keeps fans coming back with fresh takes on new themes, varied structure, and intriguing stories. None of that would matter without a well-developed main character, one we feel we know well but who can still surprise us. Between letter releases, review the fascinating world of Kinsey Millhone in G is for Grafton by Natalie Hevener Kaufman and Carol McGinnis Kay. Investigate for yourself Kinsey’s history, habits, dilemmas, and cases, and deduce how Grafton’s skill with characterization and subtle world-building contribute to a groundbreaking and beloved series.
Check It Out
The Emotionally Healthy Church by Peter Scazzero invites you to embark on a journey in your own emotional and spiritual life. Scazzero explores transformative issues such as knowing your own heart, dealing with pain in your past, being vulnerable, and embracing loss and your own limits. Try it!
Eliot Porter said, “Wilderness must be preserved; it is a spiritual necessity. Even though few may visit wilderness areas they remain an open back door, a safety valve for those who never enter them.” It was Porter’s landscape photography that helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964 which helped protect 9.1 million acres of national forest and wilderness areas. Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature is a coffee table book full of both the color and black and white photography of an American photographer lesser known than Ansel Adams, but equally important in the protection and history of the wilds of the United States.
You might think literary heavyweight Marcel Proust has nothing to say to you, but French author Alain de Botton wants you to experience How Proust Can Change Your Life. This book is a unique animal, blending wit, literary biography, and self-help to illustrate the power of reading and life experiences. The short chapters have pithy titles including “How to Be a Good Friend,” “How to Suffer Successfully,” and “How to Be Happy in Love.” The audiobook format best allows you to appreciate the humor, with narrator Nicholas Bell easily bringing out the lightness in the anecdotes and observations. Change your life with one of the books we are reading along with our friends in Sèvres, France.
Hatfields and McCoys was a History Channel mini-series starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton about two hardscrabble, Appalachian families whose bloody quarrel lasted decades. Living along the border between West Virginia and Kentucky, rugged farming folk turned into warriors after the Civil War deepened disputes betwixt them. Dean King served as an advisor on the mini-series and wrote The Feud: The Hatfields and McCoys, The True Story which explores the feud with new documents, interviews, and regional details. The great-great-grandson of Devil Anse Hatfield said of the book, “Dean’s book is painfully fair to the descendants of both the Hatfields and the McCoys.”
Our First Lady, Michelle Obama, wrote American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. This colorful book discusses the successes and failures of starting a garden. Community gardens are praised for bringing neighborhoods together and nutrition and exercise are touched on.
The PEN American Center, the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization, has announced the winners of the 2013 PEN Literary Awards. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo, one of the most decorated books of 2012, added yet another well-deserved accolade in the John Kenneth Gailbraith Award for Nonfiction. Additional highlights include
Literary Science Writing Award: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow
Award for Literary Sports Writing: Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion by Mark Kram, Jr.
Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing: Frank Deford
Award for Biography: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss
Open Book Award: Gun Dealers’ Daughter by Gina Apostol
Translation Prize: The Island of Second Sight by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translated from the German by Donald O. White
For a long time, bad guys were introduced primarily to add conflict for our heroes, but somewhere along the way, they grew on us. Those of you caught up in the final season of Breaking Bad know what we mean. Especially in the last decade, television has embraced a specific type of antihero, the “unhappy, morally compromised, complicated, deeply human characters who stir both our sympathy and our revulsion.” In Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, author Brett Martin explores not only signature characters of landmark series but also the show runners – the brilliant and often damaged men driving the programs through the casting, the writing, and the directing. What does the success of these shows have to say about those who craft them? And what does it say about those of us who watch?
SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Page Count: 368
Tone: Academic, Deeply-researched, complex
1. Does Cleopatra interest you as a character in history? Why do you think she has interested artists and writers over the millennia?
2. Chapter 1 opens with the quote, “Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” Why do you think Stacy Schiff opened with this?
3. What is wrong with the statement that “a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception”? (p. 4)
4. Schiff says that when it comes to Cleopatra’s history, “Affairs of the state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart.” (p. 7) What does that mean?
5. Did your perspective of Rome change at all? How did Cleopatra see Rome? Contrast that with how we might view Rome.
6. Was Cleopatra Egyptian? If not, where did her family originate from?
7. How does pop culture view Cleopatra? How has Schiff expanded that view?
8. Do you have a favorite pop culture version of Cleopatra?
9. Is Cleopatra a good leader?
10. Do you think that Cleopatra loved either Caesar or Mark Antony or did she only use them for political gain? Does it matter?
11. Who did Cleopatra have children by? Did these children matter politically? How? (p. 193)
12. What is the difference between being described as manipulative vs. being described as strategic? How was Cleopatra described? Why? Do you agree?
13. Can you think of women in today’s world that compare to Cleopatra? How are these modern women depicted by the media?
14. What could today’s female leaders learn from Cleopatra? Are those lessons different than what a male leader might take from Cleopatra’s story?
15. Women held a lot of power in ancient Egypt. What was your reaction to this?
16. Did Romans view women the same way Egyptians did?
17. What fun or odd historical anecdotes did you gain from reading Cleopatra?
18. What are reasons why people should read of the ancient world?
19. The Egyptians of Cleopatra’s era were obsessed with Homer. What is gained from memorizing poets? What is gained from the reading of classics?
20. Cleopatra was 21 when she raised an army. Her brother was 15 when he led it. (p. 11) Did the accomplishments of people by young ages surprise you?
21. In Cleopatra’s time, teachers were revered and housed by the state. (p. 39) Do you think this is a custom that should be renewed?
22. When Cleopatra first comes into power, she curries favor with religious groups. (p. 57) Why would she do this? Do you see any parallels in this concept in modern day political life?
23. What were some of the differences between Caesar and Mark Antony? (p. 185)
24. What was Antony and Octavian’s relationship?
25. What were Octavian and Antony battling over?
26. Antony married Octavia. How was she similar or different to Cleopatra? (p. 191)
27. Cleopatra is a wealthy woman. Where did her wealth come from? Did she use her wealth wisely?
28. Do you think that political leaders today are wealthy? Does this lead to any problems with connecting to their constituents?
29. Were you surprised by any of the technology mentioned having existed in ancient history? (Ex: automatic doors, hydraulic lifts, coin-operated machines, etc. – p. 75)
30. Schiff states, “Octavian continued to threaten Cleopatra publicly while privatly he maintained that if she killed Antony she would have her pardon.” (p. 288) Did you think that Cleopatra would kill Antony? Why or why not?
31. Why did Antony kill himself? (p. 293)
32. How did Cleopatra die? (p. 305 – 306)
33. Have you read any other books by Stacy Schiff? How does this one compare to previous reads? Would you go on to read more by this author?
34. What do you think the marketing of this book portrayed it as? (Cover, blurbs, reviews, etc.) Do you think the marketing matched the book?
35. Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?
Stacy Schiff’s website
Hatchette reading group guide
Stacy Schiff on C-SPAN
Stacy Schiff on The Daily Show
WBEZ interview with Stacy Schiff
The New York Times interview with Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra Wikipedia entry
Cleopatra as a subject of paintings
If you liked Cleopatra, try…
Librarian Josh Hanagarne can bend horse-shoes. He’s also a bright, witty, semi-believing Mormon living with a severe form of Tourette Syndrome. The World’s Strongest Librarian is a memoir of love, books, and family, spiced with tales of eccentric library patrons and Josh’s wry account of his journey with Tourette’s.